Morning Walk: Sustainability Leadership for Your Startup

Larger companies have the resources to support all of the activities of a chief responsibility officer or chief sustainability officer including the creation and maintenance of a dedicated group or department to focus solely on developing and executing a sustainability-related strategy.  Sustainable startups do not have that luxury, yet sustainable entrepreneurs must recruit a sustainability leader during the first days following the launch of the business in order to establish a foundation for all of the sustainability-related initiatives that will be required as the company grows and help the fledgling company establish credibility and legitimacy with respect to sustainability among its stakeholders.

There will be a temptation to choose someone who already has important responsibilities with respect to human resources or operations to serve as the startup’s sustainability leader.  In many cases the founders will have no choice given that there is insufficient capital to fund a full-time sustainability leadership position.  However, every effort should be made to make sustainability the primary responsibility of the sustainability leader and provide him or her with enough time and other resources to effectively take on the required tasks.  In turn, the sustainability leader needs to understand that he or she is working in a startup situation and that “all hands on deck” will be the operating principle for months, if not years.  As such, he or she should be comfortable with addressing the broad range of potential issues and activities that can be placed under the sustainability umbrella including environmental, health and safety matters; recruiting a diverse team; volunteering and other philanthropic initiatives and community engagement.

The startup sustainability leader needs to have certain specific skills and personality traits.  He or she needs to be able to think strategically, not only using the traditional and formal tools of strategic and financial planning but also being able to grasp and implement important concepts such as strategic philanthropy and creating “shared value”.  The ability to clearly articulate and communicate the company’s mission and purpose, as well as the company’s sustainability commitments, is also essential since the sustainability leader will, along with the CEO, be on the front lines of engaging with the company’s key stakeholder constituencies.  Beginning with new hires and community groups, the sustainability leader will need to engage in dialogues to explain the company’s sustainability mission and commitments and gather information from stakeholders regarding their concerns, goals and objectives and expectations regarding their relationship with the company.  Communication skills will also be needed in order for the sustainability leader to participate in broader initiatives on environmental and social issues that the company needs to join in order to establish itself within the sustainability community and gather the knowledge and connections necessary for it to ultimately become one of the recognized leaders in its area of activity.  The sustainability leader also needs to have knowledge of the company’s processes, products and technologies in order to help the CEO and other senior managers identify sustainability-related opportunities and risks.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of the startup sustainability leader is contributing to the creation of an organizational culture in which dedication to sustainability is firmly embedded.  When the position is created and the CEO and candidate for the position sit down to discuss whether or not to proceed, both parties need to take the measure of the other and confirm a commitment to building a sustainable enterprise.  The sustainability leader needs the enthusiastic, authoritative and public support of the CEO and the CEO needs to know that the sustainability leader will be able to help the CEO follow through on the sustainability commitments he or she will be making to board members, investors, employees, customers and community members.  The sustainability leader needs to be involved in the vetting of each new team member and work with them to explain what sustainability means to the company and the role they will be expected to play in building a sustainable business.  The sustainability leader needs to plant the seeds for what will eventually become larger environmental and social projects: launch recycling programs; encourage telecommuting; offer employees opportunities to volunteer with community-based nonprofits; lay the foundation for certified B corporation status.  All this will take time and substantial amounts of energy—the sustainability leader should expect to meet regularly with everyone in the organization during the first few months while the size of the team remains manageable—and will often seem daunting given the paucity of resources; however, the good habits formed will serve the company well as years go by and the company’s core competencies with respect to sustainability emerge.

For further discussion see the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Project’s materials on Sustainability for Small Businesses and Startups.

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